By Ins Choi. Directed by Weyni Mengesha. A Soulpepper production. An Arts Club Theatre presentation. At the Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, April 30. Continues until May 24
Kim’s Convenience won’t win everybody over, but it will charm many through an odd combination of formulaic predictability and soulful integrity.
In Kim’s Convenience, first-time playwright Ins Choi explores the relationships among the members of a Korean-Canadian family who run a corner store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. Off the top, a real-estate developer offers Appa (which translates as “Father”) a persuasive sum for the property, and points out that Walmart, that crusher of small businesses, is moving in nearby. Appa, who’s getting old, persists in dreaming of a Kim’s Convenience dynasty, but his daughter, Janet, a photographer, has no interest in running the business. And Janet’s older brother, Jung, ran away from home at 16, after an altercation with Appa that sent him to the hospital for several days.
We only hear about this violence; it lurks off-stage in a tougher reality. The convenience store that we actually see, and the characters who inhabit it, feel just a couple of steps removed from Sesame Street: things are a little bizarre here, but they’re also tidy, funny, and affectionate.
Appa’s willingness to inflict pain becomes an audacious, even endearing, eccentricity. Janet goes on a date with a cop named Alex, and when Appa “supervises” a conversation between the two, he literally twists their arms until they declare their affection for one another. I’m not knocking this passage. It’s out there. It’s funny. It’s also emblematic of a series of conciliatory choices.
In by far the funniest run in the script, Appa coaches Janet on how to spot potential shoplifters: “Fat black girl is no steal. Fat white guy, that’s steal. Fat guy is black, brown shoes, that’s no steal. That’s cancel out combo.” Appa’s theories are hilarious, partly because some of them contain surprising—and uncomfortable—grains of truth.
Besides making me laugh, Kim’s Convenience made me tear up—more than once. Who can’t relate to intergenerational conflict? And when Jung shows up… Well, brace yourselves.
Too often, though, the script is flat. In the long, mostly dull opening, when Appa is trying to convince Janet to run the store, the business-versus-the-arts argument is familiar. Janet’s just-add-water romance with Alex looks like bad TV. And although they’re moving, both Jung’s arrival and the play’s resolution are predictable.
Still, there’s an undeniable honesty—even necessity—about Kim’s Convenience. Asian-Canadian friends I talked to on opening night saw their families clearly reflected on-stage. Kim’s Convenience talks about Canadian experiences that are too often ignored, and it does so with heartfelt urgency.
Besides, this Soulpepper production is beautifully realized. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee’s Appa is so witty and nuanced that he feels like a Korean Archie Bunker. (For those of you who don’t know Archie, check out reruns of All in the Family). Chantelle Han makes a grounded, naturalistic foil to Appa. And as Mrs. Kim and Jung, Jane Luk and playwright Choi share some of the evening’s loveliest moments.
Ken MacKenzie’s set is so detailed you can practically smell the store’s musty floors, and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound responds subtly to the script’s emotionality.
I went in and out of Kim’s Convenience. Fortunately, the bell on the door didn’t ring every time.